Several years ago I was on a pontoon boat on Lake St. Claire with my brother, John and a bunch of friends to open the bass fishing season. This annual event has marked the beginning of summer for John and me for about the past fifteen years. I’m not much of a fisherman so my role is that of official “hook baiter” and “fish remover”.
For me, it’s not about fishing; it’s really about spending time with my pals and listening to all their funny stories and just hanging out. John is simply one of the best and most generous people I have ever known. He and his wife live in Windsor and are avid hockey fans. They have season tickets the Red Wings and they also billet kids who play for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. Occasionally, some of the aspiring young hockey stars join us… and I have as much fun listening to their tall tales as I do those of all the other “liars” on the boat. We have lots of laughs during the day and the evening is usually spent by a bonfire talking hockey.
On one excursion when the young hockey players joined us, our bonfire conversation turned to comparing the hockey played in ancient times to the hockey played today. I was amused that the budding hockey stars had very little understanding or appreciation for just how good the players were in the days of black and white television. I tried to explain to them just how great players like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau really were… sadly, some had never even heard of the great Jean Beliveau.
They listened patiently until I asserted that each of the aforementioned players, and many others of that era would be stars in today’s NHL. They countered with the all too familiar claim that today’s players are bigger, stronger and faster than those who graced the rinks decades ago and that today’s players are far superior. I conceded to one or possibly two of their assertions. Yes, it can be statistically proven that today’s players are, on average, bigger than those who played in the Bobby Hull, era… and I think they are correct in asserting that on average, today’s players are probably stronger. After all, they spend more time in the weight room than those of earlier vintage. However, I challenged the assumption that Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby are faster or better players than the stars of earlier generations..
Obviously, these “youngins” never saw Yvan Cournoyer, Maurice Richard, Bobby Hull or Guy Lafleur in full stride or in “High Definition”. However, this doesn’t mean that today’s NHL isn’t played at a more frantic pace. Today, teams usually run four lines and with shifts rarely exceeding forty-five seconds, it stands to reason that the tempo is a little quicker. On top of this, the two line pass has allowed for more speed in the neutral zone and because the “D” are no longer allowed to obstruct or “hold up” the fore-check, the attacking forwards go into the corners at full speed. Is there any wonder that despite having the most protective equipment possible there are more serious concussions than ever before? No… I don’t buy for a moment the argument that today’s players are one inch faster than those of yesteryear. Yes, the game itself is faster and played at a more frantic and even dangerous pace… but stride for stride I see little difference in player speed or skill.
So… having conceded that today’s players are, on average, bigger, stronger and at least as fast as in previous generations, does it not logically follow that they are better? That’s certainly an interesting argument and one that was quickly put forward by the young lads. I replied that two plus two doesn’t always make four. They looked at me as though I had two heads. I said… let me put it this way… Wayne Gretzky was never considered to be one of the fastest skaters in the league, nor was he anywhere near being one of the strongest. Yet, Gretzky is widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not THE GREATEST player of all time. (Personally, I’m even more convinced of this after seeing how the Bruins completely shut down Crosby in their recent playoff series. There isn’t a team in the world that could have done that to The Great One). Gretzky did things that can’t be measured with a stop watch or a bench press. He simply had the ability to seemingly disappear from view and then suddenly reappear with the puck glued to his stick. He would then make a pass from nowhere to somewhere and the puck would end up in the net. No matter what the opposition did, he was magical and dangerous for every second of every shift he ever played. You see, the greatness of the Great One had nothing to do with size, strength or speed.
My young friends wouldn’t buy a single word of my argument. They even went so far as to say that Gretzky played against inferior competition and that he would be little more than an average player in “today’s NHL” . This was one of the most incredulous statements I could possibly have imagined anyone making and it demonstrated just how limited their understanding of the game really is. I counseled that each generation of hockey players overlaps with the previous generation. For example, the Rocket Richard era overlapped with the Bobby Hull era, which in turn overlapped with the era of the incomparable Bobby Orr… and then came the Guy Lafleur era which overlapped the Gretzky generation to be followed by Lemieux and so on… and so on… until we come to the players of today. Each of the aforementioned players stood in awe of those already playing in the League when they arrived on the scene.
A great player like Guy Lafleur took several years to find his legs in the NHL of the early 1970s and he was still playing in the NHL in 1991 with the Quebec Nordiques, alongside newcomers Matts Sundin and Joe Sakic. Even my young friends had to admit that both Sundin and Sakic would be star players in today’s league while curiously they were reluctant to grant Lafleur that same status. Having seen all three of these players in their prime, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Lafleur was easily as good as the other two. And if we were to throw Gretzky into the mix, there shouldn’t be a doubt in anyone’s mind as to which player was the best of the four.
Still, my young friends needed more persuading. So, I went on to tell them that the greatest team I ever saw in my over 55 years of watching hockey was the Canada Cup Team of 1987; precisely that era of hockey they claimed to be vastly inferior to the NHL of today. In that year, Team Canada boasted players like, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Dale Hawerchuk, Paul Coffey and the recently retired Raymond Bourque. It is also worth noting some of the great players who were actually cut from this dream team. These include Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Al MacInnis, Dino Ciccarelli, Scott Stevens, Patrick Roy, and Cam Neely. At this point, I began to win some of my younger friends over.
All of them had to admit that Yzerman, Stevens and Roy would be stars today…. but why is that? I think it’s because they saw these superb players when they were in their prime. They grew up watching them on colour televisions and on telecasts with a multitude of camera angles that accurately conveyed and perhaps even accentuated the speed of the game. The old technology that ancients like me grew up watching, captured the magic of hockey… but to appreciate the speed of the game one actually had to make a pilgrimage to one of the hockey cathedrals like the Detroit Olympia, the Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens.
As for today’s players, I marvel at their skills, their speed and the frantic pace at which they play this wonderful game that has become such an important part of the Canadian consciousness. Yet, I can only wonder what these great players of today would look like on the old black and white television that I watched Gordie Howe , Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr play on? I think they would look like the great players they truly are … but they would not be one inch better than the hockey heroes of yesteryear.